How can I help my spouse disclose her past?

How can I help my spouse disclose her past? August 27, 2009

I have found this blog very helpful and your advice is always “spot-on”. My question is related to this poster’s situation. What if I suspect that my spouse’s sexual past is similarly affecting our sexual relationship but they have not told me about it yet? I see similarities in how this poster describes their spouse’s current behavior of being hesitant to try new things (nothing over-the-top) and I don’t know how to ask where the hesitancy is coming from.

I guess I am conflicted about whether to inquire too much about past mistakes as I always thought that once someone has repented and has been forgiven it isn’t my business to bring up “past transgressions”.

Is there a way to create an atmosphere that will give my spouse an opportunity to disclose her past so that we can discover if that may be affecting our sexual relationship now? Thank you!

I’m glad you’re finding the blog helpful and thank you for your kind words.

You are correct in saying that past, repented-of behavior should not be brought up in any type of regular fashion, especially if the desired outcome in any way, shape or form is to make the other feel badly about themselves. However, with the right spirit and attitude it can be perfectly appropriate to talk about the past with the goal being one of openness, honesty, and increased closeness. In fact it can heighten a couple’s intimacy if they can share what may be perceived as weaknesses or imperfections and then be accepted, loved and cherished regardless.

I think your best bet is to be as open with your wife as possible. Start out with affirming messages: how much you love her, how much you appreciate her, how beautiful you find her, etc. Then move on to sharing your concerns. Tell her exactly the things you are telling me. Tell her your only wish is to bring the two of you closer and that you want to be a sounding board, her confidant, her friend and her lover. Be willing to share your own past and how you feel it affects your current relationship (pros and cons). Tell her what your “ideal” sex life would look like and all the potential you believe you have as a couple. Ask her to share her “ideals” as well. Spill your heart and soul, hold her hand and look her in the eye. Then listen! And listen some more!

If you’re going to ask, you have to be prepared to hear. By no means, should you turn around and ever use this shared information against her. Be prepared to hear things that may hurt you. Try your hardest to stay away from visualizing erotic acts that are more than likely inaccurate in your mind. Be willing to sit with her feelings of regret, shame, guilt or even pride that she is who she is today. If she does talk to you, see anything that comes out of her mouth as a gift – a willingness to share of herself very private and personal things. All of these things (bad, good, messy, pure, beautiful, and ugly) are part of who she is – this lovely spirit you chose to join your life to. You belong to each other now. With that ownership comes great responsibility and privilege to take your spouse as a whole – not just the “socially approved of” parts.

You need to be prepared for some different possibilities (especially because I’m not clear on whether or not you know she’s had previous sexual experience). Other things that could be affecting her hesitancy are:
  • The sexual education she received in her home of origin. If sexuality was not easily discussed or discussed only in the light of it being a grievous sin before marriage, she may be experiencing some normal hang ups of just not being able to easily “switch gears” now that she is married. Laura Brotherson states the following in her book And They Were Not Ashamed: “The ‘Good Girl Syndrome’ is a result of the negative conditioning that occurs from parents, church, and society as they teach-or fail to teach-the goodness of sexuality and its divine purposes. This conditioning leads to negative thoughts and feelings about sex and the body, resulting in an inhibited sexual response within marriage. . . .The Good Girl Syndrome may be the great underlying and underestimated cause of sexual dissatisfaction in marriage.”
  • Religious Beliefs. Similar to the above stated problem, your wife may have a different set of ideas form you about what is considered sexually correct behavior in regards to the command of staying “chaste.” It is imperative that couples be comfortable discussing these differences in a non-threatening and non-blaming manner.
  • The possibility of previous sexual abuse. It is important that when you broach this question (and I would ask it directly), that you make sure you communicate that you know it would be incredibly difficult for her to share this with you if it has happened, and that you are aware that many women never tell anybody because of fear and shame. If she does disclose that she was sexually abused, it is essential that you remain calm, attentive and loving towards her. It is also imperative that you follow her lead – it is highly probable that the abuser could be someone she grew up with and even someone you know. If you go off on a rage or threaten to confront this person it could be very damaging to her disclosure efforts and send her into panic mode. Ask her how she wants you to respond. Don’t expect she will tell you everything immediately – she may only start with half truths or part of the story just to test your reactions. Encourage her to get professional help and be willing to be part of that process (going to sessions with her as the therapist deems necessary).
If you find yourselves in a position where you can’t find compromise or common ground on these issues, I would suggest seeing a marital and/or sex therapist to help you explore and meander through this sometimes delicate and yet vital part of your married life. It’s better to deal with issues while they are in their infancy – it’s harder once they are entrenched into your behavioral and cognitive patterns.
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